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How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Leafs

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Okay, worry less. And love conditionally.

Minnesota Wild v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

If you have been around any Toronto Maple Leafs fan for longer than three seconds, you may have noticed that they have what you might call the world’s funniest case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite being the punchline of the same “plan the parade!” joke the rest of the country has made for fifty years, the Leaf fanbase spends most of its time emotionally crouched with its hands over its head waiting for something to explode.

This is understandable. The history of the franchise since 1967 has been a bit like the third act of a Home Alone movie, where Marv and Harry get shocked and burned and hit in the face with a brick. The Leafs have been felled by injury and by bad refereeing. They have lost close games and they have lost humiliating blowouts. They have given lottery picks to other teams. They have been managed by men who could have been outperformed by root vegetables. I would say there is no type of crushing hockey defeat that hasn’t hit them but that’s probably just asking for us to get knocked out of the playoffs by the bubonic plague next April.

Even saying that joke, I know there’s a Leaf fan fear that something like it is faintly but distinctly possible. That’s what it’s like. I get it, I feel it, I share it.

And I am here to suggest that maybe we could all stand to chill out.

But What About The Bad Things?!

I get it!

I am writing this the evening after our captain and beloved prodigal son/dad John Tavares busted his finger, and the day after our team blew a game against the Washington Capitals by collectively farting for eight minutes rather than playing something approximating defence. I don’t think Cody Ceci is working out all that well and it looks as if he has infected Morgan Rielly with his suckitude. Michael Hutchinson was our second choice for our second goalie and he still looks like we overrated him. The team has had a mediocre record in the calendar year 2019 and our division isn’t getting any easier. Those are real things! I’m not denying them. You can worry about them.

But anytime this team loses, there’s a certain segment of the fanbase that uses those issues not for a diagnosis but for an obituary. The successes the team has had are bitterly dismissed as mirages; all those goals and the 100-point seasons and the league-leading CF% (seriously; 5v5 adjusted) and the Tavares signing and everything else were just setting us up for the ugly reality that’s going to wear black and yellow and crush us in seven games again next spring. If we even make the playoffs, which we might not.

This is the fear of getting your hopes up.

There’s A Sucker Born Every Minute

And guess what? This season is probably going to end in sadness.

Every year thirty teams don’t win. A few of them get to be happy because they overachieved or won the draft lottery, but the vast majority of franchises end their seasons painfully. They leave their fanbases wondering what could have been and who should get fired. That will probably happen to us again. The league has too much parity and even heavy favourites can—well, you know what happened to the Tampa Bay Lightning last year.

Being a sports fan—any sports fan, not just a Leafs fan—is about being a sucker, to some extent. If your happiness is based on the chances of your team winning the championship, you’ll figure out pretty quick you’re playing an emotional lottery with pricey tickets and bad odds. Everyone knows this on some level, even if they don’t lay it out that way; they learned it the first time they watched their team get eliminated. Leafs fans certainly know it better than most, but everyone gets it.

And as you get older and wiser, or maybe just a little more dented, you start to feel dumb for cheering for a team that regularly lets you down in the end. You’re still a fan and you’re also aware that being a fan is for suckers. So you try to preempt all that misery with defeatism. You can’t fall if you lay yourself on the ground first.

I really do get this. I do it too. But past a certain point you start to realize something: you’re turning the whole thing into a joyless exercise that you do out of habit. You’re dosing yourself with that just-got-eliminated misery game after game. Is this what you want out of your hobby?

Maybe it is. Masochism’s a popular fetish. But maybe it’s worth trying to change the way you cheer for the team.

Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life

The most you can get out of a modern hockey team, in this NHL, is to be in with a chance. You can want your team to maximize its chances and we do. But it’s always going to be a move of a couple of percentage points for an unlikely proposition.

If the Leafs were a team that we cared absolutely nothing about one way or the other—for some reason the Minnesota Wild are immediately springing to mind here—would we say they’re doing that?

I think we would. They’ve made the playoffs three years running and the last two years they did so fairly comfortably. They have genuinely great offence. Expected goals are borked right now, so I’ll just note their shot differentials are excellent so far. Their goaltending has been brutal to start the year, but I’d be willing to trust Frederik Andersen to figure things out. I might be in the minority here, and I would still agree he’s coaching for his job, but I don’t think we’re doomed by having Mike Babcock behind the bench.

I can, do, and will get mad game to game. I will make tweets that are just capitalized expletives and I will complain when they screw up. It’s just worth keeping in mind that this team is decent and has a chance. I know we all want more and we can argue as to how to get it, but in all that endless turmoil it can be a little nice to enjoy that hey, we have a shot. It’s something we spent a long time not having. It’s something that makes the journey worth while even if we know it’s a long shot to get to the destination. It might even be enough to make it enjoyable to cheer for a team as accursed as the Toronto Maple Leafs. They might even win something for us.

I apologize for when the team winds up getting the plague.